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Volume 50 Number 29, August 1, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE


Gove's Lecture on "The privilege of public service"

Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, gave the 56th Ditchley Annual Lecture [1] on June 27, on the subject of "The privilege of public service" [2].

Gove's thesis is that there is a need for change. His argument is that previous ruling elites have failed, particularly over policy and judgement, as they have ignored the concerns of their "fellow citizens". As a result, "faith in conventional political parties, their leadership and their allies in business has been broken". His solution, what he means by change, is to reconnect the elites with the masses, change the make-up of the ruling elites, and their methods, so as to restore that faith.

Gove immediately begins by taking up the issue of the New versus the Old. Throughout, he uses the 1930s as a historical parallel, quoting the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who said at the time: "The crisis consists precisely of the fact that the inherited is dying - and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." Gove describes the Old at that time as "aristocratic liberalism" and the New as "liberal democratic nation states with welfare systems", in other words, the coming social democratic era.

His parallel is that the present is similarly a time of "morbid symptoms" afflicting the body politic. Speaking of the thirties, Gove speaks of the traditional political and party structures breaking down. The present is different, he says, but likewise the models that have been inherited from the past are crumbling. He refers to the failure of the political compact, otherwise known as a covenant, between the people and their leaders: there is a deep sense of disenchantment, he says, on the part of many citizens, with a political system that they feel has failed them. What the compact leaders have offered is broken in their eyes.

It is worth noting in this respect his constant qualification of the failure of the arrangements that it is one of appearance: it is what citizens "feel", it is "in their eyes". In other words, the sickness of the body politic is one of how citizens perceive things. He talks about the compact as being about "trust": trust that the leaders are the best, trust that we have your best interest at heart, trust that we will deliver. It is in people's eyes that this "lack of trust" exists.

Gove explains the cause of the sickness in the gap between the elite and the masses, whom he calls the "governed and employed". However, the elite for Gove does not have its basis in class division, but is an elite with certain skills or qualifications, or professional mobility, and having different values. It is implicit in Gove's presenting of matters that society has naturally polarised itself into a natural governing and employing elite versus a governed and employed mass. Always the "meritocrat", he accepts this natural aristocracy, this natural order, but it has brought problems, which could be said to be an alternative way to phrase his whole thesis. His argument is that this natural elite has ended up with different values and has become disconnected from the masses.

He explicitly says, then, that there are crises in authority, crises which began during the first decade of the 2000s, the turning point being the financial crisis in 2008. The essence of these crises in authority is a growing gap in wealth and attitudes, according to Gove. He further alludes to the conditions against which authority is struggling to operate. He identifies the scientific and technological revolution; ever present, just hinted at in the background, is the obsession with lack of control.

Continuing to draw parallels with thirties, Gove says that the problems of that time inspired change, significantly using the phrase "national and social solidarity".

He asserts that we need to follow a constructive, progressive, inclusive path, as was exemplified by F D Roosevelt. FDR managed to save capitalism, restore faith in democracy, indeed extend its dominion, renovate the reputation of government, he says. He proceeds to outline various pieces of his programme for change, hung off the various things that, in his rendering, Roosevelt carried out.

He talks about how government is distant from the people and inward-looking, putting forward various truisms. He states his intent to relocate various Whitehall departments, and speaks of increased devolution to the regions. His vision is for the group of elite decision-makers in government to be "broader and deeper", by drawing from a wider "talent pool". One would think he was talking about a company recruiting its senior managers. Yet, says Gove without a hint of irony, "we should be a pro-worker, pro-public servant People's Government".

To restore faith in government, he says, the challenge is to change how government itself works, by reorganising the institutions. At the heart of the programme must be a focus on what works, he says. Despite the academic tone, the passing references to "bodies politic" and the like, there is no theory of governance - Gove reveals the pure pragmatism, the "deliverology" of his whole outlook. In this context, he raises the need for evaluating data rigorously and having metrics, and for the Civil Service to hire those with mathematical proficiency. His model for the Civil Service and the entire government is some rosy view of a dynamic Silicon Valley tech firm.

Hence there needs to be a "bias towards experimentation", he tells us. "We need, as a Government, to create the space for the experimental and to acknowledge we won't always achieve perfection on Day One." Gove wants to open a space for tearing up norms and arrangements under the signboard of innovation. Just like the Coalition Government ten years ago, this government is presenting itself as a great reforming government. Just like the Coalition, it is carrying out shock and awe.

The context takes us back to Gove's thesis. Rather than recognising the right of all citizens to fully participate in decision-making, and elaborating a programme to guarantee this right, Gove speaks instead of the "privilege of public service", by which he means that "public service" - being part of the mechanisms of government - is the privilege of a decision-making elite. His whole argument is that previous elites have failed, and this has caused "morbid symptoms". The privilege, as he paints it, "comes from knowing that those of us in government have the chance every day to make a difference". They are the ones looking after things on behalf of the masses, the "governed and employed". With this privilege comes a duty to know if what they are doing is "genuinely transformative". Can they prove that the various changes of arrangements "have made clear, demonstrable, measurable, improvements to the lives of others"?

There is no fidelity to the human relations, which point to the need for empowerment. There is just effectiveness to deliver, there is just pragmatism. It is left unsaid that this pragmatism is enforced by the increasingly naked police powers of the state. The truth is what works is backed up by might makes right.

There are indeed "morbid symptoms", and, yes, the old mechanisms and political covenant are broken, fundamentally so. The issue is not to fix them, but to replace them entirely. The agenda expressed by Gove's speech - a speech full of truisms and distortions intended to block people from developing an independent outlook - is thoroughly backward and dangerous. The direction being pushed by Gove and others is of centralisation of power in the form of rule by a small elite, and this must be rejected.

Particularly in the present, working people, the "governed and employed", are learning from direct experience in simply keeping things running in times of all-sided crisis that, in the face of the irrationality and arbitrariness coming from the existing authority, they can no longer entrust that authority to acting in their name. They cannot afford to entrust their fate to the self-serving ruling class. Rather than Gove's so-called duty of the privileged elite, people are concerned with their own social responsibility, which is to hold that existing authority to account and acquire for themselves the power to become the new authority with the right to speak and to decide directly.


[1] The Ditchley organisation describes itself as follows: "Ditchley was founded as a privately-funded charity in 1958 by the philanthropist Sir David Wills in order to support the Transatlantic Alliance between the United States and Europe by bringing decision makers and experts together in a unique and inspiring setting. He was moved to act by painful memories of the Second World War and the dangers of the Cold War. Ditchley Park is an extraordinary place, but our story is most of all about people and what they can achieve when they work together."

It explains: "The Chairman of the Ditchley Foundation is Jonathan, Lord Hill, formerly EU finance commissioner and Leader of the House of Lords. Previous chairmen have included George, Lord Robertson, former NATO Secretary General and Secretary of State for Defence and Sir John Major, former Prime Minister.... The current Ditchley team is led by the director, James Arroyo OBE."

Of its guiding philosophy, it says: "The philosopher Isaiah Berlin was an early supporter of Ditchley and had a strong influence on Ditchley's approach, for example through his conception of liberty as a process as well as a state."


[2] The full text of the speech, published on July 1 by the Cabinet Office, is available at:

The speech can also be viewed at:


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